Paralyzed SD Teenager Hits The Surf

As reported on

SAN DIEGO – The first time Patrick Ivison, 14, went surfing, he said, "It felt like flying."

The blond teenager with the cracking voice and braces has been in a wheelchair most of his life because of a childhood spinal injury. But Patrick’s disability hasn’t stopped the Scripps Ranch High School freshman from playing sports.

Photo courtesy
"The first time I went surfing, the guy threw me on his board and took me along for the ride," Patrick said. "It’s gone beyond that to where they’re teaching me what to do."

This year, with help from friends, Patrick achieved his dream of tackling the waves on his own surfboard. His mentor, Robbie Nelson of Happy Barrels Surf School in Encinitas, taught him to use a custom board with foam ridges he can grip with his arms.

That success has motivated Patrick to work even harder at the grueling physical therapy that makes him stronger.

Recently, Nelson took Patrick out in a boat for his first try at tackling the powerful waves off Point Loma’s Sunset Cliffs. With volunteers paddling nearby, Nelson positioned Patrick on his surfboard

It took awhile before they could catch one of the waves barreling toward them, and they went under a few times. Patrick shrieked with delight as his board finally caught one of the reef breaks.

"Woooooo! I’m flying!" he yelled as he coasted on the wave.

Nelson cheered him on from the water, praising Patrick for hanging on tight.

The teen stayed out for more than an hour, cheeks red with cold. He returned to the boat only once, to have hot water poured into his wet suit to warm his 130-pound body.

"That was incredible," he said afterward. "Complete weightlessness."

Patrick lost most of the use of his legs and arms in an accident when he was a toddler. He and his mother, Jennifer Kayler, were walking behind a car in Imperial Beach when the driver suddenly backed up and trapped Patrick underneath.

That was Sept. 24, 1995. He was 14 months old.

The doctors said Patrick’s spinal cord was damaged near the base of the neck and that he would be a quadriplegic, in a wheelchair for life.

The driver was uninsured, Kayler said.

Kayler quit her job as a secretary to care for her son and relies on government assistance while studying to be a registered nurse. She has sole custody of Patrick and his sister, 11-year-old Samantha, and they live in Scripps Ranch with Kayler’s parents, Janice and Bob.

Despite a prognosis that Patrick would not walk again, Kayler was determined to give her son a full life.

He plays wheelchair sports through the San Diego Adaptive Sports Foundation and is an active Boy Scout. In his bedroom, rugby, soccer and basketball trophies overlook a bed that he can lower or raise with a control pad. Surfing posters – one signed by Greg Noll – adorn the walls.

In 2003, Patrick got his first taste of surfing through Life Rolls On, a Los Angeles-based organization that helps disabled people surf. The group was founded by Jesse Billauer, a well-known surfer who hit his head on a sandbar at age 17 and became a quadriplegic, a story documented in the 2003 film "Step Into Liquid."

Nelson, a volunteer with Life Rolls On, agreed to teach Patrick one-on-one last year. Nelson devised a system in which a "pitcher" would aim Patrick toward the shore, and a "catcher" would help him safely come to a stop.

In July, Patrick was able to surf by himself for the first time.

"He’s making dramatic progress, and I’m blown away," Nelson said.

For information about Patrick Ivison, go to